National News

Trump Signals Consequences for Cohen Over Secret Recording

Posted July 21, 2018 4:05 p.m. EDT
Updated July 21, 2018 4:07 p.m. EDT

BERKELEY HEIGHTS, N.J. — President Donald Trump lashed out at his longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, on Saturday, suggesting that there could be legal consequences for Cohen’s decision to record a discussion they had two months before the 2016 election about paying a former Playboy model who said she had an affair with Trump.

“Inconceivable that the government would break into a lawyer’s office (early in the morning) — almost unheard of,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Even more inconceivable that a lawyer would tape a client — totally unheard of & perhaps illegal. The good news is that your favorite President did nothing wrong!”

With his tweet, the latest in a week of dizzying statements by a president whose advisers say has become more unwilling than ever to listen to advice, Trump signaled open warfare on Cohen, a longtime fixer he had until now tried to keep by his side. The Justice Department is investigating Cohen’s involvement in paying women to quash potentially damaging news coverage about Trump during the campaign.

The investigation into Cohen, the onetime keeper of Trump’s personal and business secrets, remains a source of deep concern for the president’s lawyers, and in recent months, Trump has offered public messages encouraging Cohen to stay loyal to him.

In late April, the president said on Twitter that “I have always liked & respected” Cohen, and that while “most people will flip if the Government” spares them punishment, “I don’t see Michael doing that.” But this month, Cohen suggested that he was looking seriously at cooperating with prosecutors, telling ABC News that he would “put family and country first.”

While the president suggested Saturday that Cohen’s recording may have been illegal, New York law allows one party to a conversation to tape it without the other knowing. Over the years, Cohen, in his dealings on Trump’s behalf with journalists, opposing lawyers and business adversaries, frequently taped his conversations, unbeknown to the people with whom he was speaking. Trump himself also has a history of recording phone calls and conversations.

After learning about the tape, The New York Times approached Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. A person familiar with the discussions said that once The Times approached Giuliani, the president’s legal team chose not to assert attorney-client privilege over the recording.

In going after his longtime associate, Trump, who left Washington on Friday to spend the weekend at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf course, added another chaotic twist to a head-spinning week that began with a widely condemned news conference with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, in Helsinki. It was also another example of how the president tries to barrel forward into another news cycle after a spate of unflattering news coverage.

But at the same time, Trump’s largely unconvincing efforts to repair the damage by asserting that he in fact accepts that Russia interfered in the election — and the inability of his aides to persuade the president to make a decisive pivot on the issue — has kept the news from Helsinki front and center.

The frantic conversations over what to do began on the flight home. While the president groused about the difficulty of the questions posed to him by U.S. journalists, John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, mostly stayed away from Trump.

Bolton wrote down four bullet points aboard Air Force One that he believed were relevant, including that Trump should acknowledge that he believed the intelligence agencies’ findings on the Russian meddling. He relayed them to the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, although it was unclear whether the suggestions were delivered to the president.

On the plane, Trump’s mood vacillated from snappish to upbeat. He asked advisers once again about the Democratic National Committee server that was hacked (he had raised the server issue while standing next to Putin), and why cyberintruders had not penetrated Republican National Committee systems.

In the days since arriving back home, Trump has surveyed almost everyone he has talked to about his performance in Finland, but few told him just how poorly it had gone. Aides suggested different options for “changing the narrative,” without seeming to realize that a simple story would not suffice.

Trump ultimately came up with his own solution: He would say he had left out a word in the news conference with Putin. “The sentence should have been, ‘I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia,'” Trump said Tuesday, trying to clear up the confusion but heaping on more. “Sort of a double negative.” When it was clear that the news cycle had not jumped ahead, Trump’s daughter Ivanka looked for ways to push the narrative away from Russia. On Thursday morning, at a senior staff meeting, Ivanka Trump, a senior adviser to the president, told the group that she wanted help keeping her father on message, according to a person briefed on what took place. She said her worker retraining announcement with her father later in the afternoon at the White House could provide a pivot toward a new story.

Once she finished talking, the president’s counselor, Kellyanne Conway, pointed out that Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, and two other administration intelligence officials would appear at a national security conference in Aspen, Colorado, noting that it could become another day of coverage about Russia. John Kelly, the chief of staff, resumed the meeting without addressing the issue. No one else suggested a plan of attack either.

Later that day, the spotlight on Russia only intensified as Trump invited Putin to Washington. The move caught Coats by surprise as he answered questions onstage in Aspen.

By Saturday, the president tried to move the focus away from his dealings with Russia by targeting Cohen. But in doing so, he shifted the story back to another matter nagging his presidency: accusations by women that Trump’s lawyers had paid them for their silence in the wake of extramarital affairs before he was elected president.

The president’s aides have had little to say about those payments. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday. In the past, though, the president’s aides have called the account of the affair by the former model, Karen McDougal, “an old story that is just more fake news,” and have denied that the president was involved.

In response to the president’s tweet Saturday, Lanny J. Davis, Cohen’s lawyer, who formerly served in the Clinton White House, hit back at Trump and Giuliani. Their legal strategy was “flawed,” he said, addressing a comment by Giuliani that the recording could ultimately clear the president of wrongdoing.

“The strategy of @realdonaldtrump @potus @RudyGiuliani is flawed; just as is #Trump’s false #Twitter statement made against @michaelcohen212 this morning. Rudy claims the tape is “exculpatory”. Why so angry?” Davis wrote. The recording is sure to raise new questions about what the president knew about the payments and when.

McDougal says she began a nearly yearlong affair with Trump in 2006, shortly after Trump’s wife, Melania, gave birth to their son Barron. McDougal sold her story for $150,000 to The National Enquirer, which was supportive of Trump, during the final months of the presidential campaign. But the tabloid sat on the story, which kept it from becoming public. The practice, known as “catch and kill,” effectively silenced McDougal for the remainder of the campaign.

On the recording, Trump and Cohen were discussing what would essentially have been a reimbursement to American Media Inc., or AMI, the parent company of The Enquirer, whose chairman, David J. Pecker, is friendly with the president. The recording was found during an FBI raid on Cohen’s office this year.

When The Wall Street Journal reported on AMI’s payments to McDougal days before the election, the Trump campaign denied knowing about them. “We have no knowledge of any of this,” Hope Hicks, the campaign spokeswoman, said at the time, adding that McDougal’s claim of an affair was “totally untrue.”

Privately, Trump’s advisers have suggested that Cohen had done things that Trump was unaware of. The recording makes that harder to accept.

On his way to the New Jersey golf club, the president ignored several questions from reporters about why his campaign would have denied knowledge of the payments if he was on tape discussing them with Cohen.